Archive for June, 2015

M&D 01 lo

It’s been an interesting year so far.

I achieved one of my lifelong ambitions by entering, and completing, the London Marathon despite some serious knee issues. In doing this, I raised over £1,600 for BackCare charity. I’ve worked with more maths exam students on a one-to-one basis than ever before and played around 20 gigs as a guitarist.

I’ve also lost both of my parents in the past 10 weeks.

When my 95-year-old father died in hospital in early April, I had no time to mourn or to grieve his passing. My mother had also been admitted to the same ward a few days before and the staff had decided to put them in adjacent beds. A thoughtful idea but one that backfired when my father’s heart arrested late one night. I can only imagine the psychological effect this must have had on her.

In the Jewish religion, a body has to be buried as soon as possible after death. My time was taken up with handling the funeral arrangements and trying to work out the logistics of where mum would go after leaving hospital. She had spent the last nine years as my father’s carer, a man she had been with for 72 years.

Over the previous few years, my mother’s fiercely protective nature had driven a wedge between us. She always knew what was best for my father. I disagreed on a variety of issues and wanted to improve his life. Despite his dementia, he always sided with his wife. I became distant from them – it was my way of coping with a situation I really couldn’t handle.

After dad died, mum remained in hospital for a few weeks. One Monday evening I received a phone call to say she might not last the night. She was still at death’s door next day so I sat with her and, in a quiet voice, I told her that I forgive her for everything that had happened between us, that I’ll be fine and that if she wants to leave that’s ok. At that moment, all my anger subsided. I’m not sure whether my words helped to bring her back from the brink but by the next day she had made an amazing recovery. I promised my father before he died that I would look after mum and was now given an opportunity to be as good as my word.

We found a really good care home for her and within 10 days she had moved in. She lived there for five weeks though never really settled. Her room had family photos and some of her favourite knick-knacks but they meant little without her husband. On a number of occasions I sat with her and held her hand, talking about dad. She even facetimed my son in America. But the death of her lifelong partner had removed her reason to live. Towards the end she was almost unrecognisable and started seeing my father in visions. Last Sunday she passed away. Her body was still warm when I kissed her goodbye.

The eulogy I read at my father’s funeral was very factual; the one at my mum’s was far more emotive. I struggled to complete it.

Yesterday I went to their home, the house I grew up in. I walked through the front door and called out “hi” as I always used to. I sat in the lounge, closed my eyes and could see my dad sitting in his chair. I turned round and saw my mum, and as I looked on I could see them speaking. Mum would frequently check that dad was ok; even though partially deaf, he would always reply. They had nicknames for each other. In my mind’s eye, I could see and hear everything.

I have a number of arthritic conditions that cause me daily pain but this dulls into insignificance when compared to the physical pain and mental anguish I am going through now as I mourn both my parents. It is with a very heavy heart that I write this. I know that time will help but at this moment I can’t see that far ahead.

Originally published in The Huffington Post

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The recent furore with one of the maths GCSE papers raised some interesting points.

There were a number of difficult questions including the now infamous one referred to as the Hannah’s sweets question:

“There are n sweets in a bag. Six of the sweets are orange. The rest of the sweets are yellow. Hannah takes a random sweet from the bag. She eats the sweet. Hannah then takes at random another sweet from the bag. She eats the sweet. The probability that Hannah eats two orange sweets is 1/3. Show that n²-n-90=0.”

The solution is within the ability of an A* student but the topic, probability, should be one that even average students would attempt. By combining the creation of a quadratic equation with probability, only the very best students are likely to have obtained the correct answer.

To really understand why the level of anger directed at edexcel, the exam board, was so high, it is important to know the grade boundaries for this exam. In June 2014, a score of just 26% resulted in a passing C grade, with 44% being enough for a B grade and 62% for an A grade. Even an A* only required a mark of 80%. With an average student obtaining less than half marks, it is hardly surprising that this question went viral on twitter.

What is really concerning is that questions like this may well become the norm in two years’ time. The Department of Education’s “Mathematics: GCSE subject content and assessment objectives” document, released in 2013, outlined the changes that must be made to the GCSE maths syllabus for students being examined from June 2017 onwards. It is the sample exam papers created by three of the exam boards that have come under fire recently for being too difficult. The Office for Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) stated that while the higher papers would stretch the most able students, “OCR, Pearson and WJEC Eduqas need to refine their higher and foundation tier papers to sufficiently differentiate across student abilities.” In other words, the proposed exams are too difficult for the average student.

As part of its conclusion, Ofqual also stated that the boards’ higher papers “compare well with papers from a range of already high-performing countries.” Which countries is it referring to? Top of the list in the Programme for International Assessment (Pisa) results from 2012 were Shanghai-China, Singapore, Hong Kong-China, Taiwan, Korea, Macau-China and Japan. Where was the UK? Down in 26th for maths. Given this, it might be seen as being fair to aspire to the levels of some countries in the Far East. But is this reasonable? How do the educational cultures compare?

Take a look at education in Singapore. Figures published in 2005 showed that 63 per cent of those aged over 15 who were no longer students had achieved nothing better than a primary school education. What steps has Singapore taken to improve this situation? Around a quarter of all public spending goes on education, more than double that of the UK. Training drives for new staff have resulted in many classes having two teachers, and all new staff receive continuous personal training and development from senior teachers.

In English primary schools, teachers only need a C grade at GCSE to teach maths; in Japan, most teachers at the same level have a maths degree.

Making exams more difficult will not raise the quality of secondary education in the UK. Proper investment in specialist teachers in primary school and better qualified teachers in secondary schools would be a start. And when a quarter of all UK secondary school maths teachers do not have a maths degree, is it any wonder that our students are poorly taught and ill-prepared for their maths exams?

Originally published in The Huffington Post

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